Joel King takes Real Life from the street to the stage to the nation

Joel King takes <i>Real Life</i> from the street to the stage to the nation
Jennifer Silverberg

By six o'clock, curtain time, the Grandel Theatre is packed. It's the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and this is the second and last show in a one-day revival of Real Life, a musical drama written, produced, composed and directed by Joel P.E. King. Almost everyone in the audience, whose members range in age from small children to their grandparents, has some personal connection to King and his cast. For the past seven years, they've been going to King's plays, even back when they were one-acts put on in churches and barbershops. King has put their lives onstage.

King just turned 30. Real Life is his most ambitious show to date. The cast numbers nearly 40, including singers and dancers. There's a four-piece band. There are lights and a soundboard. There's an elaborate two-level set that King and his stage designer and roommate Ramiro Rojas pulled out of storage just five days ago and reassembled on the Grandel's stage with the aid of photos from Rojas' cell phone. Nobody had bothered to scrap the wood after the show's original run in August.

"We knew the minute we took it down, we'd be taking this show on the road," King said as Rojas and his apprentice, Alfonzo White, struggled to fit a doorway into place.

Joel King surveys his fictional stamping grounds of St. Louis Avenue.
Jennifer Silverberg
Joel King surveys his fictional stamping grounds of St. Louis Avenue.
A scene from Real Life.
Christopher “King Yella” Hawkins
A scene from Real Life.

This wasn't just wishful thinking. Nobody, least of all King, could remember the last time a show by a young black St. Louis playwright went national, but last August it seemed like it might really happen for Real Life. King had gotten a few phone calls from investors, and two of them, one from Los Angeles, the other from Chicago, had agreed to fly to St. Louis to see it. This weekend's revival has been organized especially for them.

The matinee earlier this afternoon went well. As with all the performances in the earlier run back in the summer, the actors played to a full house, with a few people sitting in the aisles. They laughed at the jokes, they mmm-hmmmed in agreement with some of the wiser characters, shouted warnings to some of the less wise, and they walked out singing the catchy opening number: "Livin' the life in the ghetto, ghetto/Livin' the life in the ghetto, come on."

But this is the performance that really matters, and moments before the six o'clock curtain, the most important row in the audience, the one reserved for the investors, is empty.

At six on the dot, King leaps onto the stage. Tall, slender and light skinned, he wears his black hair close cropped and a scruffy goatee. His sweet smile and calm presence carry enough weight that the theater falls silent as soon as he opens his mouth to speak.

He's sorry for the delay, he tells the audience, but the investors are on the way. Can they wait a little while longer?

The crowd applauds. Of course they can!

"I can feel your energy already," King responds. "When the show starts, we'll need your energy. We've been doing a lot for the past two weeks; we've been working very, very hard physically to make this thing happen. Sit back, relax, relate. We're showing Real Life!"

He bows offstage to another round of applause.

The great appeal of Real Life is that its audience does relate. "When you're watching the play, it's like watching your life, your cousin's life, your best friend's life," says John Reed II, a dancer and actor who plays Juicy, one of the show's two flamboyantly gay characters.

In real life Reed attended Morehouse College and came to St. Louis to intern at the Black Rep, the city's — and one of the nation's — premier black theater company. But his lack of a ghetto upbringing doesn't mean the play fails to resonate. "It's like, 'Oh, wow, I'm not there, but I was almost there, that's what my cousin meant when he said...,'" Reed explains.

Most of Real Life takes place during one day on St. Louis Avenue on the city's north side, a neighborhood filled with hustlers, thieves, prostitutes, drug addicts, corrupt cops, a pair of hip-swinging queens and a gaggle of church ladies who try to bring them all to Jesus while the older folks look on and the convenience-store owner keeps the shop open late in case there's trouble.

The main character, Ray, has thrown away a promising future that included a basketball scholarship to Duke in favor of lying around his grandmother's house and halfheartedly pursuing a career in dealing drugs. It develops that Ray deliberately threw his final high school game (and in so doing threw away his scholarship) because he thought leaving the ghetto would make him a sellout. Unsurprisingly, Ray's plans to embrace what he believes is his fate — to be a hustler — go awry, and he ends up in jail for shooting a dealer. In the end he finds redemption when he realizes the importance of his relationship with the son he'd previously neglected.

Subtle it's not.

Then again, it's not intended to be. King calls his plays "urban theater," a relatively new form of black theater that differs sharply from the more traditional shows produced by companies like the Black Rep.

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